I wanted to write about an experience I had recently: I finally beat Bastion. Yes, that “Indie Game Darling” from 2011 by Supergiant Games.
I had decided to take a week to catch up on several critically acclaimed Indie games, including Undertale (2015) and Superhot (2016). But, by starting my journey by finally finishing Bastion I noticed something – they all paled in comparision. This beautiful game from a little studio, now 8 years old, was still the best. Somewhere along the way, both indie devs and fans seem to have forgotten what this game got so right.
So let’s take a little comparitive journey with Bastion as our guide.
Superhot (2016) has a very simple premise: “Time moves, when you do”. Well, mostly. In reality times just moves very very very very very very slowly when you stand still, but that is less catchy. It is good and it is fun, but there are two lessons it could’ve taken from Bastion.
1. The Story shouldn’t stop the Game
This for me was by far the most tedious part of Superhot. Its fast-paced, thrilling action as you dodge bullets and massacre a room full of red bad guys in a matter of seconds. Each level ending with a shareable video of what your onslaught of terror looked like in real-time.
So when the story sections are “in between” levels where you just run down corridors, or worse, read text on a computer monitor as it scrolls past like an IRC chat roleplaying session – it just kills the pace of the game.
What Bastion got right is that the Story very rarely stops the game. A lot of the story is delivered through narration by The Stranger (Rucks), this will often happen between the action of levels as you more your character a long. This means Bastion is nearly always Action or Story, without one stopping the other. The use of the narrator is a very smart way to keep the pace of the game going, while also becoming its defining characteristic thanks to amazing voice acting.
2. Games need to add depth as they progress
I noticed this around the halfway mark with Superhot – I wasn’t getting new weapons. This is something you come to expect from games like this (Hotline Miami comes to mind). On the first level you might have a knife and a pistol, by the last level you should have a literal arsenal of creative violence at your disposal. Giving you more depth to the game.
About two thirds of the way through Superhot you do gain the ability to “Body-Swap” with a red-guy, allowing you to suddenly be at the other end of a narrow hallway, with a freshly loaded shotgun. This is fun. But, it has a very long cooldown before you can use it again, and it is about the only thing that is added to the game. Even with faster body-swapping in the final level, you are still fighting the same enemies with the same collection of weapons you have seen all game.
In a game of viscerally dismembering enemies in fun and creative ways, only having about half a dozen weapons seems like a big oversight. I mean, there wasn’t even a chainsaw.
This is another thing Bastion did right. Each level added a new weapon to your collection, adding complexity to your choice of which 2 you want to carry with you. These weapons are also evenly paced throughout the game so that it always feel fresh. Add to this the fact that each new area offered new enemies with different methods of attacking you, and you have a lot of creativity to work with in your gameplay.
There is a point in the story of Superhot – maybe 3/4s of the way in – where it forces closes the game “booting you from the system”, and you can actually stop playing right there if you want. Neither the story nor the action particularly progress after that point, unfortunately.
Undertale (2015) caught most of the gaming world by surprise when it came out, and quickly developed a substantial following and critical acclaim. Its Earthbound, meets a Pokemon farce in 8-bit glory.
While it does remember the lesson “Games need to add depth as the progress” with each boss having a creative take on its already unique combat system, it does fall a little short on “the Story shouldn’t stop the Game”. This is somewhat to be expected with the JRPG elements (all that clicking through lots of textboxes), but I still felt that at times I was being held hostage by the story.
So I think the lesson Undertale could’ve learnt from Bastion is:
3. Know what your game is about – Stick to a core mechanic
You could tell the whole story of Undertale without the boss battles. In fact, there are so-called “Pacifist runs” where you don’t fight anyone, you instead use the “Mercy” option after having successfulled talked to your “enemies” and found out they are not so bad after all.
This was immensely frustating for me, because I thought the combat system was the single most interesting part of the game! And the game clearly took a moral issue with the fact that I wanted to fight everyone…
So if the combat system isn’t necessary to the story, there is already an alternative “mercy” system, and the narrative of your game criticses players for using it – why have a combat system at all? Undertale could’ve focused around sub-verting tropes of RPGs and having you never fight enemies at all, only talk to them (you are a small child after all) and it would’ve worked just as well.
Bastion has its moral moments and emotional scenes, but it still understands that it is first and foremost a hack-and-slash adventure. The game’s core is that action, and it never hinders that experience. While Undertale can be played as a fighter or a pacifist, I think both mechanics could’ve benefitted from being fleshed out more, if one was chosen over the other.
GRIS reminds me a lot of Thomas Was Alone (2012). Both are platformers, but Thomas has a greater depth to the progression of how you beat its platforming levels (Lesson #1).
While Bad North is very remincent of FTL (2012), and forgot another lesson from Bastion I’ve not touched upon yet:
Bastion offers the players the option to played a second time with the all of the weapons unlocked and all of your upgrades – each weapon having 3 tiers of upgrads you can freely switch between.
This adds a lot of replayability to game, with your playstyle constantly being in-flux between weapons, upgrades and tonics (passive bonuses).
This is something FTL also nailed. Progressing to the final area and beating the Rebel Flagship is how you “win” the game, but there are myriad of spaceships, with their own variant designs to unlock along the way. This means there is great motivation in starting another run at the Flagship even when you inevitably watch your ship become scorched floating debris drifting in a nebula. A system Subset Games further improved upon for Into the Breach (2018).
Whereas in Bad North, when my best army tied, I kinda stopped playing. There was nothing for me to unlock or gain by starting a another run. As its a game so reminiscent of FTL, I would love to see them add some of the replayability that games has – which still counts as Lesson #4 from Bastion.
To wrap up, I want to make it very clear that I love Indie games and I want to support them. Every game I have mentioned here is one that is totally worth playing, and you should go and buy all of them at full price, right now! (Sometimes you can get it direct from their website, and that means more of the money goes to the creators)
But, if its been a while since you’ve played Bastion – or its still on your list as a modern classic you’ve been meaning to go back to – then I highly reccomend going back and giving it another look.
You might find a few more forgotten lessons if you do.